Hey, I’m Noah Stewart

Photo: Mitch Jenkins

When Noah was a toddler, his mother says when the choir sang a solemn hymn he would cry. When joyful, he would clap his hands. It seems that he had an immediate attachment to music. Yet, his own awareness of this affinity wouldn’t happen until much later. One of opera’s established Black tenors, Noah’s early involvement in music occurred by happenstance. His mother needed a babysitter for him until she got home from work, the choir was looking for tryouts, he raised his hand, and music has been the best nanny he’s had ever since.

With an enviable resume, a graduate of New York’s LaGuardia High School and the Juilliard School and having won many singing competitions, you would think his journey would have been made easy. It also took a while for him to take music seriously. Instead, he wanted to be an engineer; building things came natural to him. But as a Black artist in a predominantly European musical genre, he soon realized that in order to be successful he had to use the same principles of his more scientific interest to engineer a career and a reputation, especially since the foundation, his voice, came naturally. 

The opera music business is unkind to any artist in its financial expense, demands of travel, grueling rehearsal schedule, and inability to build familial or romantic roots anywhere, let alone to factor in the small detail of race. Importantly so, as there have only been a few Black international opera singers of any kind; with only six male stars of any repute: Robert McFerrin Sr., George Shirley, Simon Estes, Lawrence Brownlee, Eric Owens, and Morris Robinson, the latter three being Noah’s contemporaries. Although Noah dislikes to think about being limited by the color of his skin or his sexuality as an openly gay man, it’s a doubly inescapable reality since most operas feature characters with a heteronormative storyline and, although fictional, make reference to people primarily of European descent. Unless of course, they’ve been explicitly modernized or are contemporary operas. What helps, of course, are Noah’s chiseled looks, perhaps a welcome departure from the rotund physique customary of opera’s leading men, and a full, booming and handsome voice that is unmistakable. Noah commands the stage with charisma and virtuosity, where a flirtatious bat of the eye demands its own ovation. 

He’s created a number of roles on major operatic stages domestically and internationally, including T. Morris Chester in Philip Glass’ Appomattox at San Francisco Opera, Hassan in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune at Covent Garden and Luigi in Puccini’s Il Tabarro with Maestro Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Music Festival. As well, he’s had many notable performances, debuting as Don José in David McVicar’s production of Carmen at Göteborg Opera, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at Ries Opera, and Don Pedro Alvarado in Peter Sellars’ Purcell Indian Queen, which premiered at the Bolshoi, Teatro Real Madrid, Perm Opera and English National Opera, conducted by the unorthodox Teodor Currentzis, to name a few. 

His self-titled album, Noah, was warmly received by critics, but was clearly a fan favorite, earning him the title as the first Black singer to hit No. 1 on the classical music charts in the U.K. when it debuted; fourteen on the overall charts. 

By any stretch, Noah’s achievements are remarkable, especially for a boy from West Harlem, perhaps proving finally that folks should raise their hand more often because success is not always given, that destiny and luck can harmonize in a hum, that our paths can be made with patient listening, perseverance and sometimes inspiration. We sat down with him to talk about his journey.

Tell us about how and why you auditioned for the choir to kill time.

I stumbled upon music kind of by accident. I remember like it was yesterday. I was sitting in math class and I heard the principal say over the loudspeaker, “Today we’re having audition tryouts after school for the choir.” I remember my mother saying whatever activity that you can get yourself involved in the better. I grew up in Harlem, New York, in the 80s, and the 80s in New York were extremely dangerous, to say the least. Uptown was dangerous. Downtown was dangerous. It was just kind of a very colorful place to grow up. My mom was a single parent and she couldn’t afford a babysitter. It was my sister and I and so the keyword was “free”; anything I can get my hands on or get involved in that would keep me out of trouble because it was just so easy to be influenced by kids who hung around the block or hang around the corner. I didn’t grow up with a father and so she just encouraged me just to get involved. So, I raised my hand.

When did you first realize you had a gift?

Every year throughout the year, we’d have a couple of concerts that we would do at assembly and sing for our classmates. I remember I was so embarrassed because they had not seen me sing. We had only traveled around, had math, science and homeroom class together. Choir was this kind of secret club that only singers wanted to be involved in. One of my first memories was a musical theater performance night called “Broadway Babies.” I performed in Fat Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin. I sang a song called “Your Feet’s Too Big.” I remember kind of doing my routine and hearing laughter from the audience. I couldn’t see anything. The audience was pitch black and the spotlight was shining directly in my face, but it was that moment when I kind of was bitten by the bug. I enjoyed it. I was filled with this energy I had never felt before that I could not describe. It was like an electric current. I thought I have to have more of this. The next day I went to class and my friends were like, “Wow, Noah! You really can sing. You were great last night!” I thought to myself, “I am?” because I never ever thought that I had a voice, or a talent but I just really liked being on stage.

And TV, apparently. How did Sesame Street come calling?

Being in choir just opened my world up: to be paid, to have fun and with my friends and to pretend and to lose myself. It was a new experience that music had opened up for me from being a poor boy from Harlem. Sesame Street came and they said, “We need some kids to sing background with the puppets” in Central Park. We did a music video and it was, “I Got a New Way to Walk.” You know, “I got a new way to walk, walk, walk?” It was my first job or gig. We did a track for the Sesame Street CD and I got to meet Bob McGrath who was the writer and the composer. We also did commercials for seat belts.

In spite of these foundational experiences, you still had not yet committed to singing as a potential profession. How did it evolve?

After junior high school, I auditioned for LaGuardia High School (the famous “Fame School”). I also applied for engineering school at A. Philip Randolph up in Harlem. I decided to go to LaGuardia High School because it had a balanced music and academic program. I fell in love with classical music my sophomore year but at that time, I was still considering engineering as a career.

There was a room where the kids would hang out and the teachers would come in that had a TV with a laserdisc. One was of Handel’s Messiah, which is an oratorio by Handel that was usually played around Christmas time. There was also Verdi’s Requiem. Leontyne Price was the first Black person I ever saw sing in sort of an operatic technique. I was immediately transfixed. I thought, “Wow! Here is a Black person amongst an 80-piece orchestra, 150 all European choir, three soloists —Leontyne Price was the fourth.” I’m thinking, “How must she feel to be the only person of color singing this opera.” (I thought it was an opera back then because I didn’t know the difference between an opera and an oratorio.) But it was the significance of her being the only one. I said to myself, “I want to do that.”

How has Leontyne Price, your idol, now mentor, shaped your career? What was the best piece of advice she gave you?

I was reading the newspaper and I saw that Leontyne Price was coming to the then famous record store, Tower Records, in Lincoln Center, which, if you’ve been to New York, is two blocks away from LaGuardia High School. I went to meet her. I think I was maybe sixth in line. When I got to the front of the line, I was so starstruck. It was the first famous person that I had ever seen that was a singer. I went up to her and I said, “Ms. Price, you are one of my idols and I first saw your Requiem and you were amazing, and I want to be an opera singer too.” She said, “Well, darling, you could be an opera singer, but you should go to Juilliard” and I said, “Okay. I’ll go to Juilliard.” I had also bought the same spiritual, which I had sung and my first competition—Witnessed by Hall Johnson. She signed it and she gave me some advice. She said, “You have to bring yourself in this career. You have to take everything that you are into this career.” And the last thing she said was, “Give ‘em hell!” After that meeting with her, I was literally on cloud nine and went back to high school that same day and I practiced each and every day until I had my audition for Juilliard. My senior year, I got an acceptance letter and I was accepted on scholarship. She was kind of like my fairy godmother.

What was Juilliard like?

My time at Juilliard was challenging, to say the least. I found it very competitive, which I feel is important for individuals to grow, but wish I was given more opportunities. Luckily, being in New York, I found performance opportunities outside of school with small opera companies, symphony orchestras and concerts at church throughout the city. I am grateful for my time there, because it forced me to make things happen in other arenas. As people, we must continue to create and manifest our dreams, no matter the circumstances.

There were two moments in your life that gave you the push to keep going. What were they?

After Juilliard, I decided to take a year off and not attend graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music. My mother was less than thrilled with my decision, but I needed some room to breathe after four years of conservatory and wanted to explore my options. I got a job as a host at a restaurant. I would sing “Happy Birthday” to many of the guests, even if they didn’t like it. One day, one of the servers came over and said, “Noah, you have such a great voice. I never knew you sing that way.” I said, “Yeah, I want to be an opera singer.” She looked at me and said, “An opera singer?” (She was white) and she said, “You can’t sing opera because you’re Black.” Immediately my whole body got cold and then I just walked away. At that time, I had already taken a couple of years off from school, but that was the push that I needed to get myself back on track.

It wasn’t too many months after that that I got a job at Carnegie Hall as a receptionist, answering phones. I remember one time I was humming because I had brought in a piece of music to learn while I was at the desk and one of the administrators came up and said, “Excuse me Noah. Do you know where that noise is coming from?” I said, “Yeah, that was me humming.” He said, “Oh, I’m sorry, but we really don’t do that up here.” I was so mortified and embarrassed. I felt like I was at my lowest because it was my second year out of Juilliard. I had done a few competitions and done well, but no one was really giving me a chance. Here I was at Carnegie Hall, the most famous Hall in the world. I’m thinking, “They’re hearing my voice, saying, “Carnegie. This is Noah. How may I help you?” And I thought they must be thinking “What a resonant voice. He must be a singer. We must hear him, and we must have him on stage.” But that wasn’t my experience. I remember feeling a little bit defeated, but I was determined. I saved my money and I took voice lessons as many as I could afford every other week and the next year, I made my Carnegie Hall debut, singing Mozart’s Requiem. I wished the administrator had come down and said, “Ha! All that humming paid off.”

Your breakout moment came while you were role studying the main tenor role of Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth. Tell us about the importance of preparation and what that moment meant for your career.

After working numerous jobs in New York and struggling, I got an opportunity to join San Francisco Opera and their young program for the Adler Fellowship. Part of the fellowship’s duties or responsibilities is to understudy or cover a role and also do small roles. In this particular project I was to sing a small role of the character of Malcolm. He’s the second tenor, not the big role but the smaller one. I had asked to understudy the main role. They said, “You’re not really ready yet, but we’ll give you a role study so you can follow along the score and learn it.” So, every day I went to rehearsal and I took notes. Usually in an opera it takes about two to eight weeks of rehearsal before the opera is even mounted. So, it’s a really long rehearsal process and you’re called to rehearsal almost every day. The lead tenor was stuck in Europe and he couldn’t come. So, they skipped over all of his role. I was thinking, you know, I am sitting here, I’m roll studying, why not use me? But they never used me. I sat there and I just took notes and I coached the role with my coach as much as I could. About a couple weeks before the production opened, they brought in a new tenor. I thought they were going to choose me, but they brought in someone who had more experience, naturally. I was a little bit disappointed, but you know, that’s show business, as they say. There were, I believe, six to eight performances that we did.

In the first act of the last performance of Macbeth, the tenor was showing signs that he wasn’t feeling well. So, after the first act, the curtain came down and the conductor and some administrators came rushing to my dressing room and said “Noah, we have a problem. We don’t have an understudy for this role of Macduff. Do you feel like you can do it?” I said, “Sure.” I really didn’t have time to think about anything. I was both excited and nervous for this opportunity. But I had been to rehearsals and I knew my part inside and out. The second act opened, and I went on as the big tenor. I sang his big aria and finished the performance. The ovation was enormous. It was like a tidal wave of bravos and applause. It’s still etched in memory as one of the most emotional nights I’ve had in my life. While it was a success for the show, it was a personal success for me because I knew that I could do it. Even though others doubted my abilities I knew. Again, God stepped in and made it happen and after that wonderful night, I moved back to New York and I got my first agent and started working.

What stage was the most coveted for you to perform? What was that moment like?

Covent Garden was the ultimate dream come true. As a student at Juilliard, I remember going to the library and seeing some of my Idols, like John Vickers, Maria Callas and Franco Corelli perform there. For my first rehearsal on the stage, I looked into the audience and thought, “How could a boy from Harlem get here?” My dream came true. It wasn’t quick but it seemed like the blink of an eye and I was there. It was such a special moving moment and was a big chapter in my life. I’m so grateful and I’m so blessed.

Why is it important for you to be considered as a “singer” than an “opera singer”?

My family is from Louisiana, so Jazz was the first music I’ve ever heard. The first voices I heard were Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. Before I sang classical music, I was singing jazz, I was singing pop, I was singing R&B. So, it was important because so much of who I am, my story, my background, growing up in Harlem, I was influenced by so many genres of music. I only chose classical music and opera because I loved it, but I didn’t see little boys that looked like me in it. I didn’t see Black heroes being portrayed on operatic stages on the videos and I wanted to do that.

My first album for Universal, I didn’t want to do an all operatic CD because I was still early in my career and, if you look at tenors like Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, tenors who had had big discographies, they had been singing operas for at least eight years before they had made their first CD. Here I was just beginning in many ways, and I wanted to also do an album that people could listen to and not feel intimidated. Classical music is not huge in America as it is in Europe. In Europe, you can find an opera house sometimes in every city. In America, the music is R&B, country, pop and I didn’t want to ostracize anyone. I wanted people to get a taste of opera but also remember things like Shenandoah or Deep River—songs that they really can connect with. Those songs are the same songs, which make me — me, and that tell my story. It filled me with such great emotion; different than opera but the same emotion that everyone can relate to.

Has your journey been easy? What do you say to those who are surprised at the speed of your career?

Absolutely not. To be an “overnight success” takes at least 20 years for it to happen, especially in New York City.” Like my “Juilliard School mom,” Margo Lamb, said, “Honey, you have to learn that in this business you go out you’ll sing for 100 people and out of 100 nos you’ll hear maybe one yes.” I thought after I graduated Juilliard, I would go into the world and say, “Here I am. I’m a Black tenor from Harlem. Here I am,” and people were not interested. In fact, many of the criticism was negative. They said, “Your voice is not big enough,” “You don’t have the look,” Your languages aren’t good.” I was shunned a lot. There were many ups and downs. I took lots of hits, but I always got up. Even my time at San Francisco or my time after San Francisco people think once you have an agent you are set. But as an artist, they get you work, or they get you an audition. But then you have to nail the audition and then you have to continue to go out there and hustle and do side jobs. When I was singing lead roles around the country, if I had spare time, I would still go and wait tables or still work as a cater waiter to earn extra cash because I didn’t see any difference; work was work. When I was lucky enough to start working full-time as a singer it was a wonderful moment because I thought, “Wow! Finally, I’m a singer.” But it was not easy and it’s still not easy to be perfectly honest. To stay in good condition throughout the years, it’s not an easy task. It’s a very expensive career, which I think is why a lot of people don’t go into classical music and opera. To sustain this career is extremely expensive and demanding and the travel is exhausting. If you want to do anything in this life, you must sacrifice, and you must follow through with your whole heart.

Has your race or sexual orientation been a problem in your career? Is the classical music industry doing enough to provide better representation and opportunity?

I think opera is more diverse in terms of seeing more young singers of color as young artists, but there are very few if not any on the bigger stages in the world. I think there are few reasons for that. Classical music is niche and an expensive art form. Voice lessons and coaching are expensive. Back in the day, we had to buy all of our music. Nowadays so much is available for free online. While many people like classical music much in the states, it is not supported by the government like it is in Europe. Because opera comes from Europe, many grow up going to the opera and don’t feel intimidated like other people.

In terms of sexuality, to be an opera singer it’s about the voice. It should not be about who you’re dating or how you look. Of course, there were instances. I remember I was singing a production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Someone called in and said, “Is this Black guy singing Romeo? If he is, I’m not coming.” That was the first instance where I had felt racism and I was even more determined to go to be Romeo and those performances were sold out. The great joy that it brought me was at the end of the performance I saw a little Black boy coming over to me and he said, “You were great. Mr. Romeo” and I thought “What a tremendous experience to be the first Romeo that this little boy had ever seen and for this Romeo to look like him.” It was such a special experience and another experience that prompted me to say, “You know, Noah, you must do this, you must succeed, and you must be excellent because it’s not about you. It’s about the generations that follow you.” It’s a blessing. What can I say?

Pavarotti made opera music more accessible. You say you equally want to be a music ambassador. How are you planning to do this?

Pavarotti brought music to the masses and that’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I think classical music sometimes gets a bad rap, being called elitist or snobbish but really classical music and opera were the music of the people. It was normal to go to an opera performance and for it to feel like a rock concert, for people to really scream and to throw things on stage (although we don’t want that). They were really involved. For me there is no place I don’t want to perform. There are a lot of artists who perform at only specific opera houses which are very few and select, but I have performed everywhere from South Africa to Scotland to Mississippi to California to Milwaukee, because opera is for everyone. As long as I shall live, as long as I can sing, I want to share my gift with the world and show them that everyone should be able to enjoy classical music and opera; not just people with money.

What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn’t yet had their ‘aha moment’ or know how to recognize it?

To follow your dream, to also be curious and to have the courage to try to look outside the box. I think in today’s society there are so many images that are inundated with on a day-to-day basis and we think, “Oh, because this person looks like me, he does this, or he acts this way. That’s the only thing that I can do.” I just want to challenge them and encourage them to really try and pursue as many passions as one can to find the thing that speaks to them. I chose music and I was lucky enough to find something that I liked, and I stuck to it. Even though people said, “Oh, that’s not cool, or that’s for sissies, or I don’t like that,” I never let those haters deter me from following my dream to be an international operatic tenor. For me to still be doing it is God’s proof that anything can happen for anyone.

What’s the best piece of advice you never got?

To start planting the seeds now. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Now is the time to begin working on and honing your skills that will serve you in the long run. Don’t wait for inspiration or your friends or family to give you a push. You are the push that you need in order to make all of your dreams come true. You have unlimited power inside of you. All you have to do is believe and move. Don’t stop. Keep moving and gathering information. Knowledge is power.

If you didn’t have to worry about being successful, what would you do with your life?

If I wasn’t a singer, I would definitely be an engineer. I’ve always had an interest in the field of engineering and chose to focus on music instead. The technical side of singing classical music reminds me of the complex nature of engineering. If not an engineer, I would probably be a baker. There’s a real art to making great bread and I love the early mornings, making things happen when much of the world is still asleep. I would also serve a great cup of coffee and keep people smiling. After all, happiness is the greatest success one can have. Without happiness, we have nothing.

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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